When residents move into a senior living community, they typically get a warm welcome — but the same can’t always be said for employees.
Instead of getting flowers, a gift box or a welcoming committee, employees are sometimes tossed into the deep end without enough training or onboarding. And this is a big reason why many industry workers quit within their first 90 days on the job, according to Glenn Barclay, CEO of QSL Management and principal of its parent company, QSL.
Faced with a historic staffing crisis that shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon, Barclay and his team began piloting at one of the company’s communities a new position dubbed a “retention specialist” aimed at keeping more workers past the 90-day mark. The position significantly reduced turnover, and QSL is in the midst of rolling it out to all of the company’s 10 communities.
“We have a move-in coordinator on the resident side, they move somebody in, they make sure that experience is exceptional, they take care of all the problems,” Barclay said during a recent appearance on the Senior Housing News podcast Transform. “That’s what this position does: it’s a move-in coordinator for employees.”
QSL also recently weathered Hurricane Ida at its The Blake at Colonial Club community near New Orleans, and Barclay stressed the importance of disaster planning for providers across the country, not just in hurricane zones.
On QSL’s business structure and unique origins as a company:
It is an interesting story.
[There were] two development companies. One is QSL, that’s my company. And we partnered with another development company called CVI to both build the first Blake building and to operate the first Blake building. CVI and QSL went into a joint venture together — both as developers and as a management company — and our first building opened in 2008 in Gulf Breeze, Florida.
It was a real success story for us, and we began to develop together. As we opened the buildings, we would manage them together. We got together and we decided we could probably develop more buildings, if we actually separated. So, we agreed on standards for the buildings; agreed on the design of the buildings; what is important us; what really aligns with our business plan, our values and the whole reason that we’re in this industry.
And it worked: We were able to develop more buildings, we were able to be more innovative and learn from each other. And we continued to operate those buildings as Blake Management Group. That was the first step of kind of realizing we may be able to get more done more efficiently if we start developing separately.
As we grew as a company, as any company would, we had different investor groups. We had what I would say are your country club investment groups of a lot of individuals coming together. And as we grew as a company and grew our relationships, we had more institutional types of funding, capital companies, wanting to help us and join with us.
We began to notice that we had some ownership groups that wanted to go in a little bit different direction as far as the design and possibly even some of the systems that we put in went. Other owners that wanted something different, it was really hard to please them. So, we were spending a lot of time at the table, and that’s not where we wanted to be.
So, we decided to [split up]. We actually divided the portfolios by ownership interest and a little bit by region. It was a very amicable separation. We still work very closely together; we still have standards that we meet; we still share our designs; we share our systems; different philosophies about what’s working well, what doesn’t work well; and we still have the same mission to be the premier senior living community in our markets. I probably talk to Blake Management Group at least weekly.
As far as how QSL started, we formed QSL to develop properties and to join with CVI to form Blake Management Group. But it really came from a personal situation for me. My mother-in-law needed assisted living. I was a customer, and I’ve been in health care all my life, since right out of college. I got a degree in finance and moved into health care later when I became a registered nurse. So, health care is in my blood.
We started looking for a place for my mother-in-law, and I began to tour buildings. We just could not find what would make us feel comfortable.This was in the early 2000s — 2004, somewhere around that area. Senior living seemed to really be in a rut in the late 90s. And coming out of the 90s, I was seeing the same old thing and not a lot of innovation. Hospitality was kind of on the back-burner, it wasn’t something that folks were talking about a lot. It was more just meeting basic needs and not really thinking out of the box.
I was in senior living at the time, I was working for what I would say was an intermediate-size national senior living company. And I was experiencing a little bit of the same frustration. In my role with that company, I wanted to think outside of the box, and they had a very specific niche that they wanted to stay in. So, both of those things coming together really propelled me to co-found QSL with my partners, Andy Yarborough and Judy Belk.
I could go home and sleep well, knowing that my mother-in-law was going to be taken care of. She was one of our first residents at The Blake Gulf Breeze when we opened it in 2008. She moved, she made friends, she absolutely loved it and thrived. I remember after a week that she was in the Blake, she said it’s like a cruise ship that never leaves. And I knew my work was done.
On QSL’s strategy of targeting tertiary and secondary markets:
We want to be the premier senior living [provider] in that area. And we look at bigger markets but they’re really saturated.
We just really feel like we have found our niche in those secondary and tertiary markets and to be one-of-one. What I mean by that is, we look for markets that don’t necessarily have a high-end independent living.
We really build our buildings to meet the needs to attract a very low-acuity resident. In fact, about 40% of the residents that move into a Blake initially are completely independent, not even on medication management.
We found early on that one of our primary problems was parking. We had so many residents still driving that it actually became a problem for us, and we had to plan for that in our design as we moved forward. So, we look for a market that really doesn’t have a strong independent living offering, or maybe the only offering that they have is a CCRC with a heavy buy-in.
All of our buildings are licensed as assisted living. So even though we market, build our programming and build our socialization activities and gear to a low-acuity independent prospect, we are fully licensed as assisted living so that they can easily come in and age in place and not have to change apartments.
On how QSL weathered Hurricane Ida and how other providers can be more prepared:
I grew up in Louisiana, and I live in Florida. So, hurricanes are a part of our culture. We’ve all gone through multiple hurricanes and disaster situations. You learn through every experience, and I’ve been through a lot of those experiences.
I think everyone needs to plan that a disaster can hit any building at any time, whether it be a fire, tornado, hurricane, earthquake, whatever it may be. That’s the mindset that we go into preparation with. We have two values that really stand out and guide us. We have a core value of safety, and we have a core value of joy. Those are very different, but we used those to prepare for Hurricane Ida.
Safety is pretty self explanatory; you have to plan for power and food, you have to make sure that you have an environment that contributes to the wellness of your team, [such as] the temperature of your building, water, all those things that are obvious.
And joy, how do we promote joy during a disaster? A category four hurricane is worth being extremely concerned about. The way that we define joy is that it’s really a place that we create for our residents, our team members and our families. It is the opposite of anxiety. So, the more anxiety that we can remove from our team members, families and residents, the more joy that they are going to experience.
So it wasn’t just about how we could make sure we have water, food, temperatures. It was that their needs are going to be taken care of, medications are going to be there, all the supplies are going to be there, that the building is sound and safe, that we’re making the right decision. As far as whether to evacuate or not to evacuate, we had to get that message to them so that they could feel secure and safe, so that we could reduce that anxiety. Even in the midst of a category four hurricane, our residents can still experience joy, safety and peace of mind.
We start with our design; I believe that we have a benefit that we are an operator and a developer. So we have two properties in development. At any given time, we may have somewhere between four to eight that are either in development or in the early lease-up stage. So, we have a lot of resources at our disposal with our general contractors and our subcontractors, and we take full advantage of that.
I would encourage all senior living providers that are not an owner-operator-developer to make a relationship with a general contractor that can help you plan and think of things that you would never think of as a health care or senior living operator or hospitality provider. Have them on a retainer or have them on contract that they are dedicated to you. If you don’t have that in place, I encourage you to really think about that even if you’re not in a hurricane-prone area. A tornado can do even more damage than a hurricane.
You also have to think of evacuation. You can’t decide you’re going to evacuate three days before, or even four, five, six, seven days. You have to have it in your plan and know exactly what to do, and you have to be willing to mobilize that evacuation team and the resources including your transportation. You can’t decide two days before, ‘Oh, gosh, Hurricane Ida went from a category one to a category four.’
We mobilized buses and had them on site, which is an expense that you just have to be willing to make based on your values and your commitment to your residents. It turned out that we didn’t need them, but we moved them there because we knew we’re not going to be able to mobilize them far enough ahead if we wait to see just how bad this is going to be. You have to think of the worst, and not just prepare for the worst but mobilize for the worst. And so that’s what we did.
We [also] design our buildings with generators that are natural gas, so we don’t have to worry about diesel being brought in. We have two large generators that power at least probably 50% of our buildings’ key areas: all of our emergency systems and communication systems; elevators, our full kitchen, the cooler and freezer; air conditioning.
The other thing that we did was we worked with our contractor and we had additional generators brought in. I think the second day, post-storm, we had four additional generators brought in. Our contractor was there with the electrician and they were able to hook it up. We were working closely with the local government there and the mayor’s office in getting those hooked up.
Our entire building was powered, completely air conditioned. Everything was running and our residents didn’t miss a four-course meal even in the midst of the hurricane or the day after the hurricane. I don’t know if you saw on the news, but the power outage was massive. This was during a heatwave … and our residents were sitting in a cool, air conditioned building with activities, going to the bar, going to the dining room, eating a four-course meal.
There is also water. I think senior living thinks of water as just drinking water, and we have to have plenty of bottled water on site to make sure that we have water for our residents. But you also have to have water so that you can wash your dishes, do laundry or flush toilets.
Post hurricane — literally the day after — we were preparing for admissions. We admitted at least 20 residents who were in need almost immediately. We also had capitalized on our relationships with our furniture provider, and they were ready to ship furniture. We fully furnished 14 apartments because we had residents that needed to come in who had lost everything, or they couldn’t get a mover. That’s the thing after a hurricane: there’s a massive shortage of supply. So, we had those setups so that, in the midst of that and post-hurricane, we were loading and setting up apartments to make sure that residents had a place to go.
We had residents that came to us from different types of living environments that were really destroyed. Roofs blown off, rained all through the building, very serious situations. We had residents come in dehydrated and with near-heat exhaustion. So, it was definitely validating for my team there to say we brought our residents through a potentially disastrous situation, and not only that, we were able to help the area get to a better place.
On staffing challenges and how QSL is working to alleviate them:
This is the most challenging staffing market that we’ve ever encountered.
When I first started in my first administrator position, the number one problem I had was staffing. That was back in the ‘90s. Today, if you ask me what our number one challenge is, it’s staffing. It’s getting the right people that share your values, paying them what they need to be paid, offering them the benefits and the culture that attracts them. With Covid, it has become even more challenging.
We raised our base wages significantly to attract folks to come into this industry. Senior living got some really bad press. The PR for senior living right out of Covid was not good, and the PR in health care still isn’t good. We’re trying to do everything that we can to continue to build the right culture internally, to address their needs and to make sure that we’re communicating with our team members and with potential prospects.
We did a lot of incentives throughout Covid, and still do even more than we did in the past; some very intentional things to keep them motivated and keep our team appreciated. One thing that we are rolling out in the next year — we piloted it this year very successfully and it reduced our turnover significantly in the building — is a position that we call a retention specialist. We have a move-in coordinator on the resident side. They move somebody in, they make sure that experience is exceptional, they take care of all the problems. That’s what this position does: it’s a move-in coordinator for employees. They also help with recruiting, they make sure that our onboarding process is followed.
I think most companies would say ‘I have a great onboarding process,’ but maybe only 50% of it is followed consistently. We want to get that onboarding process to 100%. We want them to feel welcome. We want to make sure that they’re getting the right training, we want to make sure that someone is standing beside them, helping them through that first two weeks, first 30 days and then that 90-day mark. We find those are the most important times to make sure that an employee feels safe and secure in their position.
One of the number one reasons, if not the number one reason that someone quits their job — either a no call no show or an immediate resignation — is because of anxiety related to not knowing what they’re supposed to do. They don’t have the training, the anxiety gets the best of them, and they just throw up their hands and they leave. We want to remove that. Again, it’s part of that joy value of removing as much of the anxiety [as we can] and giving them a good start. We know if we get through those benchmarks — two weeks, 30 days, 90 days — we have a good chance of keeping them engaged afterwards.
On what’s next for QSL:
We have a project in Daytona Beach, it’s assisted living and memory care with 118 units. We have another property that’s going to get off the ground in St. John’s, which is right out of Jacksonville. We are primarily a southeastern-focused developer and operator, so Florida, Tennessee, Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, all of those states are on our radar.
We’re also growing our senior leadership. We just just moved one of our [regional vice presidents] into a vice president of wellness role where they’ll only focus on wellness. We’re hiring another regional vice president of operations.
And we’re still trying to be as innovative as we can. Our new model has an open-kitchen concept where you can see the chef cook out in the dining room. That’s probably unique for assisted living. We’re still trying to see how we can bring into our communities what an individual would normally experience on their own outside of the community. How can we build it into our design and offer it right within the walls of our community?